Lab Lungs? Breakthrough Work Converts Stem Cells into Lung Tissue

Scientists have converted human embryonic stem cells into lung cells, taking an initial step towards building human lungs for transplantation.

While the actual lab construction of lungs is surely a far-off project, scientists are excited about their ability to control the development of cells. Some medical applications could be right around the corner.

Stem cells are special cells that transform into the various types of cells needed to make a living body. Embryonic stem cells are able to make the bone, muscle, blood and all other tissue from which we're all made.

Other groups have used stem cells in labs to make mouse sperm and human brain neurons.

Now scientists at Imperial College London have taken human embryonic stem cells and guided their conversion into the type of cell needed for gas exchange in the lung, known as mature small airway epithelium.

"This is a very exciting development, and could be a huge step towards being able to build human lungs for transplantation or to repair lungs severely damaged by incurable diseases such as cancer," said study leader Julia Polak.

The results will be published in the journal Tissue Engineering.

"Although it will be some years before we are able to build actual human lungs for transplantation, this is a major step towards deriving cells that could be used to repair damaged lungs," said fellow researcher Anne Bishop of the college.

In the near term, the breakthrough could help treat acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which causes the lining of the cells to fall off. By injecting stem cells that will become lung cells, the scientists hope to be able to repair the lung lining.